It may be hypocritical for one who writes for a fantastically popular music site to delve into the whole "print is dead" can o' worms, especially considering the somewhat tired subject and almost universal expected outcomes. I am not here to piss on the the corpse of music print. It is a touchy subject that I do not take lightly (and one that affects me slightly, because I write for both online and print outlets). Although music print publications have been on the way out for a number of years, it seemed like 2009 marked a shift from panic and survival tactics to lamenting an already buried industry.
Even the most casual Tiny Mix Tape news readers will have noticed a great many story this past year about yet another music magazine shutting down its print operation or folding entirely. I can think of 10 music publications off the top of my head -- both mainstream and independent, national and local -- that have either ceased publication or dramatically changed their game face to digital over the past two years alone. When you add in the closures or restructurings of hundreds of newspapers (and their music and entertainment sections), you can begin to understand why a lot of people who write about music for a living are panicking.
You might already be sick to death of reading about the end of print media, but it is a profession that is losing thousands and thousands of positions (where is the publishing industry's buyout, huh?), and while that may not be too impressive, you, as a music fan, must be wondering what the future holds for print media, music writing, music criticism, the music industry, and the music and content itself that you now take for granted. At least I was. But after exploring some of these concerns and reflecting on the sad demise of music print media, I uncovered more questions than answers. Fortunately, I also figured out that it is an extremely exciting time for music writing, and music readers, to evolve.
- What Is and What Should Never Be and What Should Be
This may come as a surprise, but the future of music and music writing is on the internet and the traditional music print media is reeling! You don't need me to tell you why -- each and every one of you reading this are spending more time reading online because print is behind the times, is late with quick-hit news, is expensive, and is irrelevant in its coverage. Why wait for a talking head to tell you about something when you can get another talking head to do the same with a quick mouse click? More importantly, why not go to an artist's MySpace page or download an album and make your own decision? Time and money are scarce commodities and so is control and decision-making choices, and the internet helps us expand those precious stocks considerably.
The publishing industry has been hit hard on a number of well-publicized fronts (less readers, less ad revenue, less relevant and timely content), and the economic downturn could not have come at a worse time. But it's not really different from any period of large changes to business strategy and technological advancements in any other industry. New business models will emerge for music journalism, but it does not mean reporting and writing about music has disappeared. The savvy, ground-floor movers and shakers have grown their audiences online while their revenue sources have shifted. Sales staffs on magazines will have to work doubly diligently to lure advertising for their web content, but they will get it. What is going on now in the music print media is similar to the music industry's current plight and no different from dozens of industry shifts since the industrial revolution. Did I miss the memo stating big business has changed its unofficial motto from "adapt or die" to "save our bacon, please"?
These are the salad days for major label haters, but the industry as a whole will adapt, possibly not as profitable as before, but, then again, you never know. There are loads of initiatives that the big boys have implemented to promote their music and many more hair-brained, brilliant-selling experiments will be coming. The mere fact that labels can sell music digitally means they can sell it differently, through different channels, luring different listener demographics. We will continue to see strategies employed such as viral videos, guerrilla marketing, online PR campaigns, blog and social networking site support, retail associations, and most importantly, free music (which labels did before by coordinating tracks on giveaway records in music papers and still do every month with free CDs in magazines). Music companies will survive this digital shift by attracting and selling inventively. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg.
The music print industry, however, has been slow to evolve, taking its lofty position as tastemaker-to-the-masses for granted. They, like in any industry, should have been and should always be redefining themselves. Now is still the perfect time to bring music writing to a broader audience. Every print publication from Death+Taxes to the Yellow Pages is getting a digital expansion, which enables better interaction with its readers. This is a very healthy thing. We are lucky to be living when music's industries are (perhaps grudgingly) turning away from answering strictly to the advertisers and their wealthy patrons, and toward the reader and the listener, which most critics claim newspapers and magazines used to do, but have never done in my lifetime. Whether it is a false fleeting hope remains to be seen, but at least the potential for change is here.
Times of uncertainty and economic despair are breeding grounds for brilliant business ideas, and I have no doubt some will emerge victorious in these tough times. Weren't Disney, CNN, HP, and Apple all founded during recessions? There is no reason for music media to cut quality and quantity of content and move toward the same models that billions of blogs and websites provide. There is no doubt that all music media will need a strong web presence, but being "different" and interactive will remain attractive selling points.
- Ask the Amish
We all will most likely look back at print media like we do the horse and carriage now. But in certain societies, the horse and buggy is the only way to travel, and in others citizens would sell their collective souls for one village horse and one village buggy. There has been a lot of space devoted to eulogies for print's demise, but we still continually legitimize its existence. Music labels are presently stuck in the middle between allotting time and money to both print and online outlets, and so are a lot of readers. Just as people believe in the inevitable conquering by the internet of all information, there exists a hesitation to jump wholeheartedly into the digital age to engage their brains.
A world with more voices is a wonderful thing, but more mediocre voices serves no purpose whatsoever. The new is not necessarily better than the old, and new technology does not equate to inevitable success. Successful sites are rare, and the internet arena is as competitive as the restaurant business, with as high a degree of failure. If you build it, they will not necessarily come. But if you build it with superior content and presentation, and in a user-friendly fashion, they will flock like, well, loyal readers. People do not exist on information alone. Information is not knowledge or understanding or even mindless entertainment.
And although we eagerly accept the internet's impending strangehold on our attention, we do not give much thought to how that medium will change in terms relative to each of us. It is safe to say that we are fooling ourselves if we think that free music or free content is something that will continue forever an' ever, amen. If the powers that be continue to be the powers that be, then legislation will eventually end the whole free content/free music discussion. If there is money to be made, then you can bet the farm on laws being made to ensure that money is made. Although most will contend that controlling content and divvying it up according to fee structures is irrational and impossible, the internet will be moving from a "free" system to some form of paid one in the near future.
This year saw more publishers sign up with e-commerce ventures like Journalism Online and ViewPass in order to start getting paid for their wares online, and more will jump aboard as print titles morph either partly or entirely into web-based entities, as both online ad revenues continue to disappoint and the current economic climate remains as unseasonable as the water in a broken shitter. Charging for content is a hot button topic now, and it is still in its design-and-implementation infancy. But the time is coming when you will have to decide between what is worth reading and what is worth paying for.
Besides, music print will be around for quite a long time anyway, just not in the numbers that we knew even a couple of years ago. Just take a look at the vinyl record. In the grand scheme of things, it is commercially dead, but ask heads of vinyl-only labels or writers like Byron Coley and Thurston Moore in Arthur or our own Cerberus freaks, who devote columns to small-scale, under-the-radar, non-CD/download releases, if vinyl is still breathing, and they will inhale boastfully then exhale a big fat "yes" in yo face.
Christ, ask the major labels -- the majors of all people, who are still years behind the times but who have also made room for vinyl decisions and divisions despite decreased payrolls, who put out new releases and special reissue back-catalog items on vinyl in increased numbers, and who know that vinyl sales, although still just a tiny blip of overall album sales, have jumped dramatically over the last five years -- and they will smile slyly as if the holders of some dirty secret.
- If Attila the Hun Were Alive Today, He'd Be a Music Critic
Conceding the downfall (but not extinction) of the music print press does not preclude that music criticism is dead, but the loss of music titles does mean the significant loss of a lot of good music writing. Right now on the web, everything is available, but it is hidden in plain site. (I won't speak to those who genuinely want to write and read 20-word review capsules or rely on Twitter updates to influence their listening choices. No offense, do what you do, but you do not matter here.) Those who are the most adaptable and who can engage readers in interesting ways will survive, and sites who try to do everything and throw meaningless content online for the sake of filling the unfillable space will eventually be seen for what they are: bottomless voids without vision. However, there will first need to be an opinion makeover with regard to web writers.
There has been an outright hostile acceptance of online critics by old-guard print writers that is unfair and undeniable. Drowned in Sound recently held court on the subject of the end of music journalism and asked guests to chime in. All gave passionate and accurate points of view about the death or sustained life of the music critic, but while reading the pieces, I could not help but get an overwhelming sense of future dread among the authors and an unjustified dwelling on past glories of music print writing. Sure, there have been boons of wonderfully creative music writing in print, but there are countless things that should have never made it to print as well. Our future music writing heroes will have careers completely built on writing for websites.
Ultimately, nothing should change with the shift from print to web writing. Good sites will still practice the art of editing and will select important material to post, and talented bloggers will impress with insightful writing. The great print writers will stick to print or find work on the web, and their voices will be heard wherever they land. Many music writers overstep their role, thinking themselves more important than their job, but now is a great time to purge the useless writers milking off the tit of the mother industry. The music writing industry had been too brash and confident for too long anyway, so let us welcome an even playing field. Sites that capture the imagination of people and respect and integrate the wisdom of those readers will make a difference. Just like some print titles did and still might.
The internet is not the death of music print media, the death of music writing, or the death of the music critic. It should be their savior. Print might be laboring, but it is still held in high regard and is still the end goal for many aspiring writers. Blogging is fine and good for a great number of reasons outside and alongside the traditional music media outlets, but have you ever noticed a bloggeur's overwhelming sense of smug satisfaction if any of his or her posts gets picked up by a print publication? I've seen lottery winners less excited. And you can bet your life print will be around a lot longer than "chillwave" or whatever other asinine, fabricated nonsense this month's coolest site is trying to coin for cultural posterity these days. The internet is infinite, so publications and writers literally have the world at their feet waiting to be impressed.
As for print media, people are touchy about printed matter: books, magazines, and newspapers. Possessions. Have you ever watched Hoarders? Now, palpable print companions seem to have more value in a time when we hold "things" dear more than ever, but this too will change. Hopefully it will change not among preferred formats, but based solely on obtaining important and quality content. As BuzzMachine.com's Jeff Jarvis says, "The medium is meaningless." If they have the means, music lovers should take their medicine in any format, be it vinyl, CD, MP3, cassette, DAT, 8-track, or wax cylinder. The same should be true for music readers. People should hold dear not the vessel but the words contained within.
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